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Three Ways To Destroy A Christian
by Gary Roth
based on Matthew 4:1-11
Matthew begins the story of Jesus' ministry with Jesus in the wilderness. It's interesting to note how he puts it: "The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness ." God's Spirit led Him there! Most of us have been through wilderness experiences - we have known spiritual dryness, abandonment and despair - but we would never assume that it was God's Spirit that led us to that place. Yet the Bible is full of stories about people whom God led to a place like that - where he allowed them to become weak, and alone, and desperate. Where He allowed them to be tempted by Satan. Job knew it - God allowed his body to be touched, his family and business to be destroyed, and his friends turn against him. He knew the despair and aloneness of the wilderness. So did the children of Israel; they wandered in the wilderness for forty years. David knew the wilderness experience when he cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, and are so far from my cry, and from the words of my distress? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well, but I find no rest!" (Psalm 22:1,2)
Sometimes God does that - He removes all of our comfort - even, perhaps, that which is necessary for physical life. Jesus was there for forty days - he was on the very edge of life. Many of the great saints of the church have had similar experiences. St. John of the Cross calls this kind of experience "the dark night of the soul." Yet he also says that this is the greatest privilege a Christian can experience - to be brought to a point where we have no more resources, when we are left on the edge of the precipice, with nothing to hang on to, and when even God seems absent. Then we see all the darker parts of our self, as we struggle to hang on. Then we are forced to rely on faith alone - not mystical experience, not on our own limited resources - not even on our spiritual resources. We must rest on God's Word and His promises.
That's the point where Jesus begins his ministry. He is hungry - he is, in fact, starving. And that is the point - that is always the point - at the point of our greatest weakness - where Satan comes to him. That is where he comes to us as well - not where we are strong, but where we are weak. Satan is no dummy. You never attack the fort at the strongest point. But if a weak link can be found, then the whole fort is his. So Satan looks for the "weak link" in Jesus.
"If you are the Son of God," he says, "command that these stones become loaves of bread." Do you want to wipe out a Christian - not one of those weak, pansy-types, but a real Christian? You don't threaten them. They can shrug that off easily enough. You don't try to buy them off - they can't be bought. But get them where it hurts. Bread. You've got to eat, right? And you have to pay the rent. You can't run around naked. You've got to have something saved up for a rainy day. You want something to give the children. And what else do you "have to have?" Here is Jesus, on the edge of starvation, and he is the Son of God. Satan isn't asking him for any favors - he is simply reminding him of who Jesus says he is. All he has to do is one small miracle for himself - what's wrong with that? If you don't take care of yourself first, how are you going to take care of others? Jesus will do miracles all the time. Satan even has a precedent to share - God gave manna to Israel in the wilderness. Shouldn't he provide at least as much for His own on? God helps those who help themselves, right?
Wrong! That's the way we think: "first things first!" First bread. First my needs. First my family's needs. First we'll take care of necessities. Then we'll take care of God. First we'll take care of us and our people. Then we'll take care of others. But Jesus turns everything around. What is the "one thing needful?" It's God! Everything else we will lost someday - even our physical life. Only God remains. If we cling to Him, we have everything. If we lost Him, we've got nothing.
Unfortunately, most of us are practical atheists. We rationalize in every possible way. But Jesus is unequivocal. Do you want to find out who your real God is, who you really worship? Ask yourself what, in life, you wouldn't be willing to give up. That's one of those "lenten" questions. A lot of people will give up chocolate or desserts for lent. That's just playing with the season, not taking it seriously. Would you give up your job? Your house? Your family? Your retirement? Christians have a wonderful retirement program - it's called death. Until then, God expects us to be about His business. Jesus says that the person who isn't willing to leave everything behind is not worthy of him. It's hard to accept that - to be that committed.
How do we respond to this temptation? Jesus shows us two ways: first, the Word: "man must not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of god." We must meditate on His Word, we must focus our lives on His promise, until we are satisfied with nothing less - not matter how "good" it appears to us. And second, we must deprive ourselves of the very thing we crave - like an alcoholic that deprives themselves of alcohol, or a drug addict of heroin. Do we live in slavery to our belly? Try fasting! Is it money? Try tithing! Is it family - give them into God's hands. When you see yourself worrying or trying to control them, step back, place them in God's hands, and visualize them as safe in His arms. Your worry won't protect them anyway!
Matthew goes on: "Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, 'If you are the Son of god, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will give His angels charge over you,' and 'on their wings they shall bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'" The second temptation is also seductive, and looks very good in the world's eyes. You want to make a statement? You want to make an impact? Do you really think that the world is going to listen to a poor carpenter? Do you really think that they have enough depth of understanding that they'll come flocking to hear the gospel, that all you have to do is get up there and preach to them? People want Larry King! They want the Enquirer! That's what impresses these miserable creatures! You don't need truth - you need a good PR man! You need to give them a show! We have churches now that specialize in "Entertainment Evangelism" - you bring them in, give them good, clean entertainment and a little gospel, and they'll keep coming back! "Tell you what, Jesus. Get up on the top of this prayer tower, where the whole city can see you, and jump off into the crowds below! And just when they think that you're going to splatter all over the ground, God's angels will come and swoop you up from the ground. Show them what it means to be God! THEN they'll believe you!"
Isn't that the American way? "You want power? Come to Jesus! You want success? Come to Jesus! You want happiness? Come to Jesus! You want a miracle? Come to Jesus! Whatever your problems are - come to Jesus! He wants you health, happy, healed and well-heeled!" Like all of Satan's lies, it is partly true. Satan knows how to use the scriptures. God does want us to be happiness - but not with what the world counts as happiness. He wants us to know a joy that is deeper than any feeling, one that can sustain us even in our darkest hours. He wants more than just physical healing - Paul was healed, a whole person - even though he suffered from a diseased body. It was when Job's situation was most desperate that he became a whole person. If we go to a healing service and aren't healed, then what? Do we start looking for excuses - wondering what we did wrong, whether God hates us? Is God still on our side, even when we are sick - even to the point of death? Or what about when our life falls apart and we find it suddenly overwhelming? What do we do when there is no emotional high, and we feel spiritually dry? Is God still with us? Jesus answers Satan, "Do not tempt God." God is not a monkey on a leash. He is God. We are His creatures - not the other way around. He calls the shots, we respond. You cannot advertise God like toothpaste; you can't sell Him with cute slogans. He is God. We can merely worship and proclaim Him.
The third temptation, Matthew records: "Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, 'All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.'" Now that is truly tempting! He is now appealing to Jesus' highest instincts: "Look Jesus - we don't have to fight here! You want all these people - you can have them! If you REALLY love them (God only knows why!) - fine! Take them! I'm a good sport! If you fight me, you know that I will get most of them. But bow down to me, and I'll give you ALL of them! That's the kind of fine fellow I am! After all, all I ever wanted was a little respect. I've always just wanted a little of what god has. I mean, that's not too much to ask, is it? And look how much good it would do!"
Who wouldn't fold there? Such a little thing! And then Jesus could force the world to worship God! Christianity without the cross! There would be no need for Jesus to suffer and die; no lions feeding on the flesh of martyrs, no torturing of missionaries, no problems with wars, fascism, or communism; no alcoholism, or abortion - not if Jesus is in charge! Not if he could just make people do everything His way - God's way! And you know, that is still a popular approach to Christianity today - to try to impose it on people. Perhaps to identify it with a particular moral agenda, like abortion. Or a particular social agenda. Sometimes it is confused with democracy, or free trade, or the American Way.
But you don't have to look too far to see what happens when Christianity becomes confused with worldly powers - look across the Atlantic, at Europe, after almost two hundred years of Christian rule there. People were automatically born Christians - the church was supported by their taxes. The press was under the control of the church as were the schools. Kings, for a long time, could be deposed by the pope. Sounds like heaven on earth, doesn't it? I'm talking about the time of the inquisition and of the crusades. Fascism and communism originated also in that atmosphere. Right in the dead center of the Holy Roman Empire!
To worship God and serve Him means that we have to do it all His way. By the power of the cross. No short cuts. Not by earthly power. Not by our own power and wisdom. Because what our world needs, if God's kingdom is to come, is not changed morals, but changed hearts. We do not need a new economic or social system, but new eyes and ears, that see His Word and respond to it. No earthly power can change a man's heart - only God can do that. And only the cross has the power to change the human heart. As we proclaim the cross of Jesus, as we demonstrate its power in our own life - as we witness to its power to kill our old, sinful nature and resurrect us as God's children, people who live in His image, some hearts - not all, but some - will open, and He will begin His rule in those hearts.
Three temptations for Christians - three ways to ruin a Christian, and believe me, Satan knows them well. He's been up to his dirty tricks for a long time now: The temptation of bread. The temptation of spiritual titillation. The temptation to use worldly power. But there is really one common solution - the Word of God. The Word we meet in the Bible, and the Living Word, the One it proclaims. Let go of the world, and grab hold of the Word.
Does Satan have control of one of these areas of your life? The question, this morning, isn't one of salvation, but of witness - do you want to fulfill your Christian calling, or just be left sitting in the bleachers? Do you want a close walk with God, or are you satisfied with your life as it is? Hold to Christ, and to Christ alone! Forsake easier ways, no matter how tempting they may be. Jesus, and his cross, are the only way!
Frank Schaefer, for JavaCasa Resources and the Desperate Preacher's Site, 1999